In December of last year, Nishma Research published a study that surveyed over 2,000 Orthodox Jewish families about their finances.[i] Much of the information reaffirms the financial challenges in the Jewish community, namely the high cost of maintaining a frum lifestyle, that we already know to be true. By providing numbers for the problem, the study will help communal leaders address these issues in a more targeted way.
Beyond the affirmation of the high cost of living, there were also interesting data on the median family’s income, expenses and investments, as well as people’s thoughts about maintaining a frum lifestyle. Below are a few of my personal takeaways from this research, some of which have been addressed in my previous articles, that I believe are worth sharing.
- Don’t compare yourself to averages: Surveys give readers a high-level overview of a particular situation. Statistics like averages and medians are helpful methods of describing the data in a more digestible manner. However, it’s important to look at the variance and remember that, in reality, most people are not average.
Variety is the spice of life and can add a beautiful element to any community. This diversity comes in terms of different minhagim, levels of observance, professions, political beliefs, hobbies, and, yes, income levels. It’s important not to get caught up on averages, which may be irrelevant for your particular set of circumstances.
Lesson: Don’t stress if your finances are below the numbers in this survey. Your differences make you a valuable member of the kehilla. Plus, average is an irrelevant benchmark for financial success for your individual circumstances.
- Live within your means: The study asked people if they had any advice on handling the cost of an Orthodox lifestyle. One of the top responses was to live within your means. Simply put, this means that your monthly expenses are less than your monthly income, with the extra funds saved and invested for your future.
As a financial advisor, I’ve had the privilege of working with many families over the years. One of my most interesting observations is that the folks who accumulated the most assets were often not the ones with the highest incomes. Unfortunately, it was not uncommon to meet individuals with a seven-figure income who were literally living paycheck to paycheck. Their mansion, vacation home, or multiple luxury vehicles were too expensive. Consequently, they had very little, if anything, saved for the future. Despite their high income, they were struggling financially because they tried to maintain a lifestyle suited for the rich and famous.
Conversely, I also meet with families who make well below the median income reported in the Nishma study, yet they spend less money than they make and invest the extra funds every month into stocks or real estate. After years of this disciplined behavior, they’ve accumulated a substantial nest egg and have the option to retire in their 60s. Even though their income is “below average,” they are unquestionably rich. This reinforces the point above of not comparing yourself to averages.
Lesson: Understanding what it means to live within your means, and practicing that philosophy in your own life, can make all the difference.
- Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses: Another common piece of advice for affording a frum lifestyle amongst those surveyed was to refrain from keeping up with the Joneses. Just because your neighbor bought a vacation home in Israel or goes away for Pesach every year doesn’t mean you need to do the same thing.
Your neighbor may have a higher income, but they also may have someone else financing their holiday travels. It’s also possible that appearances are deceiving; they flaunt wealth but are living beyond their means and are not on sound financial footing. It’s hard to know exactly what is going on in someone else’s financial life and, frankly, it doesn’t matter. Best practice is to just focus on your own financial circumstances and not get caught up on what others are doing.
Lesson: Surround yourself with the right people. If your friends are obsessed with money and materialism, then you may feel pressure to keep up. Instead, keep friends who assign more importance to other aspects of life, like family, community, and enjoying what they have.
- The cost is worth it: One of the last questions in the survey was “Do you agree with the statement: Orthodoxy has costs, but the additional costs are worth it.” Not surprisingly, the vast majority of responses agreed that the extra financial cost is worth it in order to maintain a frum lifestyle.
Lesson: Keep the big picture in mind and maintain a clear understanding of the values that are important to you. It makes it easier to cut superfluous costs associated with some less important items, which will undoubtedly alleviate some of the financial burden associated with affording a frum lifestyle.
While there are other takeaways from this study, the above lessons are timeless. They will be as relevant in a year or decade from now as they are today. Furthermore, making the effort to implement them in your own life can change your relationship with money and the trajectory of your financial future.